Thomas B(ertram) Costain G. B. Harrison - Essay

G. B. Harrison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To Mr. Costain's vigorous narrative can legitimately be applied the overworked metaphor kaleidoscopic, for, like the images in that ancient toy, it abounds in simple bright colors, ever shifting their pattern. In this new volume of The Pageant of England [The Magnificent Century] he covers the reign of the regrettable John's son, Henry III, who ruled England for over fifty years, marked by incompetence, extravagance, petulance, broken promises, civil war, violence and magnificent buildings. The story, as befits a pageant, is reduced to simple terms and certain figures and events stand out clearly—William the Marshal, Hubert de Burgh, Simon de Montfort, the shifty king, and young Edward who becomes king…. (p. 204)

The Magnificent Century is a good specimen of popular historiography, but it illustrates the difficulty of writing colorfully about a period inadequately documented and poorly illustrated by its contemporaries. Mr. Costain has done his best, but the novelist and the student within his breast are at odds, and at times he suffers from creditable scruples. He itches to sketch a person or to describe a character, and the records elude him. He must therefore all back on the imaginary peep into the past…. There are so many of these reconditioned worthies that the reader grows sceptical…. (pp. 204-05)

Indeed for an author who eschews footnotes and is more concerned with painting than with minute scholarship, it is better to omit the bibliography and the apologetics of "would," "doubtless," and—most deadly of all—"we may be sure." The professional student will not take The Magnificent Century seriously anyway; the common reader, for whom the book is intended, wants a good tale, and he does not trouble whether the portrait of Queen Eleanor is based on a dozen original sources or has been touched up by Mr. Costain's fervid pen. It should be added that those who like pageants of history will enjoy The Magnificent Century and learn much from it; and they will look forward to the next volume. (p. 205)

G. B. Harrison, in a review of "The Magnificent Century," in Commonweal, Vol. LV, No. 8, November 30, 1951, pp. 204-05.